Grey Schist and Lotus: Buddhist Gandharan Art from the Moita Collection

We are delighted to announce the sale of a private collection of Gandharan Art on Wednesday 22 July 2020 at 3pm. The first 37 lots in our Islamic and Indian Art auction are property from the Francisco Moita Collection, and they were mostly purchased in Japan from the renowned Gandharan art expert Isao Kurita in the early 1980s, when Mr. Moita was stationed in Tokyo as the Portuguese Ambassador to Japan.

But what is Gandharan Art? And what makes this artistic production so sought-after and prestigious, to enter both private and international public collections?

The term Gandharan Art is possibly as multi-faceted as the artistic output it is meant to represent. Described at the beginning of the 20th century as art grèco-bouddhique by Alfred Foucher, Gandharan art is often classified as the prolific sculptural tradition developed in the historical region of Gandhara, modern-day North-Western Pakistan, from the 1st until the 5th century CE (C. Luczanits, in The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara, 2011, p. 13). The focus lies on the representation of figures and events central to the Buddhist doctrine and beliefs, especially on the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni.

The heyday of Gandharan art is often made to coincide with the Kushan dynasty’s reign (1st – 3rd century CE), a central Asian nomadic population that invaded Bactria first and subsequently conquered the northwest of India. Gandhara became almost a second Holy Land of Buddhism and, except for a handful of Hindu icons, sculpture flourished in the shape of Buddhist figures, cult objects, and architectural ornaments for Buddhist monasteries (J. C. Harle, The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent, 1994, p. 71).

The subjects of Gandharan art are thus truly Eastern, or more specifically Indian, in their essence. Nevertheless, the strong Hellenistic affinities and Greco-Roman influences in the style, physiognomy and overall mannerism of the sculpted subjects are undeniable. This may seem surprising, if not almost contradictory, at first. But once we start looking at the geo-political location and history of the region of Gandhara, it becomes clear that this area was one of the great cultural crossroads of the ancient world, as well as the path to all invasions of India for over three millennia (ibidem, p.79).

Even before Alexander the Great’s conquest of India (326-325 BCE), Greek settlements appeared to be already present in the territory of Bactria. After Alexander’s death (323 BCE), the Seleucids took over and shortly after, new dynasties appeared on the horizons: the nomadic Scythians, the Parthians from Persia, and eventually the Kushans. Cultural influences from Greece and the Romanised Near East, together with the local central Asian heritage and constant interactions with both the Indian Subcontinent and Persia led to the creation of a unique artistic Esperanto which has not yet ceased to mesmerise and fascinate both beholders and scholars.

lot 155, A Carved Grey Schist Seated Buddhalot 155, A Carved Grey Schist Seated Buddha

The fusion of both foreign and local elements can be appreciated in several lots in our auction, in particular in lots 155, A Carved Grey Schist Seated Buddha, and 174, A Grey Schist Carving with a Standing Pair. The Seated Buddha sculpture showcases a clear understanding of the human anatomy by displaying a well-proportioned torso, muscular arms and slender legs bent in the typical cross-legged lotus position. The sanghati (robe) covering the legs and one shoulder is treated as in Greek and Roman sculptures with heavy folds showing a plastic interest of their own. The jewellery and the hairdo bear Hellenistic echoes, especially in tune with sculptures of semi-divine beings and caryatids on the exterior of temples. In lot 174, the male figure on the left hand-side vaunts a muscular back and sturdy legs; the thick and curly hair are tied in a high bun; and the multi-folded cloth is worn in a style reminiscent of Roman togas, all elements indicative of not only fine skills of realistic sculptural rendering, but also an awareness of the fashion of the time in territories far away. 


Lot 174, A Grey Schist Carving with a Standing PairLot 174, A Grey Schist Carving with a Standing Pair

And yet, the essence and subjects of this artistic production are truly rooted in the Buddhist doctrine and in Indian religious architecture, as showcased in lots 150, A Grey Schist Relief of the Buddha Being Attacked by Mara; 151, A Dark Schist Carving of a Votive Stupa; and 154, A Grey Schist Carved Gable Relief with a Buddha in Meditation. Lot 150 presents one of the pivotal events from the life of the historical Buddha, Siddharta Shakyamuni. The source of all chaos and evil, Mara, aims to distract the Buddha from his meditation by first seducing him with his daughters, and then scaring him with his army. The panel shows the moment just before the Buddha reached Enlightenment and touches the soil to call for the Goddess Earth to confirm his triumph over Mara. Lots 151 and 154 are representative not only of Buddhist doctrine, but most importantly of Buddhist architecture. Lot 151 is shaped after a stupa, a sepulchral domed monument usually containing either remains of the Buddha or receptacles for religious objects. Votive stupas were created for believers as mementos when not in the presence of the physical remains. Gable carvings with the specific arched design of lot 154 used to be affixed to the drums of large and small Buddhist stupas, where the story of the Buddha's life started. Their purpose was to narrate the events in a story board-like sequence, which could be read by the practitioners step by step, as they attended the ritual process of circumambulation. 

Lot 150. A Grey Schist Relief of the Buddha Being Attacked by Mara

Lot 151. A Dark Schist Carving of a Votive Stupa

Lot 154. A Grey Schist Carved Gable Relief with a Buddha in Meditation.

Gandharan art, with its unique fusion of cultures, traditions, and foreign influences, remains one of the greatest artistic productions of the Indian subcontinent, unsurpassed in its charm and immortal in its teachings.


For more information on any of the items from the upcoming sale contact Head of Islamic & Indian Art, Beatrice Campi